tldr; I argue that compass-based navigation in parser IF is mostly an unintended accident of the earliest adventure games, that–in most circumstances–compass-based navigation spoils the illusion, and I mull whether it’s worth experimenting with landmark-based navigation.
The original Crowther and Woods Adventure was not nearly as dependent on the points of the compass as many ports would have you believe. In fact, for many areas, I’d argue that it was never intended to be the primary method of moving about.
Don’t believe me? Please step into my time machine as we head back to the 1970s to understand how virgin players first experienced Colassal Cave…
After connecting their acoustic coupler modem to their ADM-3A dumb terminal, dialing in, signing in, and uttering the correct incantation to start the program, the player would find themself at the end of a road. Specifically, the description went like this:
Take note that there’s not one compass direction in that description. You don’t know which way the road goes nor which direction the stream flows.
Now, prompted to enter … something, the user immediately regrets their earlier decision to skip the introductory text and hopes that entering HELP now will give them a second chance. They are rewarded with a wall of text that begins like this:
What if I told you that Advent has approximately 75 unique “motion verbs”? Yes, you’ll find NORTH, SOUTH, EAST, and WEST among them, along with abbreviations of the in-between compass directions. But the compass directions account for about 11% of the travel commands. You’ll also find UP and DOWN as well as ENTER and EXIT, but those aren’t really the same as compass directions, as they are relative to the player rather than some absolute system imposed on the simulated world that the player’s character can intuit regardless of their condition and environment.
So what are the rest of these travel commands? Places.
Let’s continue reading the help text:
Sure, 40% of the example travel words are compass directions, but do the others–especially the first three–surprise you?
Skipping ahead, we read:
So let’s re-read that opening description again:
There are no indications of compass directions, because, in this part of the world, there is no need for them. The expectation was that, if the player wanted to learn where the stream went, they would say “GO DOWNSTREAM.”
A modern player, faced with this opening description, would (after cursing the “lazy” author for not giving direction cues) pick a direction and start mapping, which is a lot less magical than “FOLLOW ROAD.” It’ll also likely take longer to stumble upon the cave and get hooked by what the story is about. (I recently saw a map of the game and realized that I never even knew the stream flowed south from the building. My earliest maps just say “DS” for “DOWNSTREAM”, and in my imagination it was always west.)
Some of the modern ports require compass directions. Sure, it’s cool that the Informese version lets you use adjectives and other modern niceties (“X WICKER CAGE”), but it lost most of the non-compass navigation. (I’m not picking on anyone here. I know the Inform version is mostly a demonstration of Inform and not intended to be a strict adaptation.)
Sure, you say, that’s all fine and good above ground. Once you’re beneath the grate, it’s nothing but the compass anyway.
I believed that, too. But a sojourn into the travel table of the Fortran sources proves this isn’t strictly true. Travel verbs like ONWARD work a short way inside the cave, as do ENTER/EXIT. It’s only as you get deeper that the game suggests:
We all remember the part about the compass before the “OR” but forget about the landmark navigation in the rest of the sentence. Naming landmarks remains a legitimate way to navigate, even underground. Indeed, there are landmark rooms throughout the cave (e.g., BEDQUILT), and uttering their names from an adjacent room can take you there. You can also CROSS bridges.
Yes, compass directions are eventually required underground, and the game eases you into that by using compass points in the room descriptions:
In a cave, it’s a reasonable conceit to navigate by compass. If the original adventure had been set on an ocean liner, then it would have been reasonable to use PORT/STARBOARD and FORE/AFT. On a small island, maybe you’d go WINDWARD/LEEWARD. On a train, perhaps you’d just name the car to you want to go to: CABOOSE/DINING CAR/etc. I doubt that second generation of adventure games would have used PORT/STARBOARD to have a character explore a haunted castle or a deserted island. But somehow they all latched onto the compass almost to the complete exclusion of anything else.
If a game begins with the player waking up in their own bedroom, surely they should be able to say “GO TO THE KITCHEN” rather than “NORTH” (to hallway), “WEST” (welcome to the bathroom, oops), “EAST” (back in the hallway), “EAST” (living room), “NORTH” (at last, the kitchen)! Having to navigate your own home by compass spoils the illusion that it’s your own home. It might also require the designer to model an otherwise useless location, like the hallway, to try to maintain the illusion of spatial coherence even if the room is completely unimportant to the story.
If, on the other hand, the player awakes in an unfamiliar apartment, it would make sense to stumble around a bit as they seek the kitchen. But it still seems extremely odd that we expect players to do so by using compass directions. If it’s a strange apartment, how do they now their orientation relative to north? Wouldn’t you expect to “GO THROUGH THE DOOR” or “CLIMB OUT THE WINDOW”?
Given how we’ve trained players to use the compass, it’s probably impractical to eliminate it completely. In my current WIP, I’m hoping to make it merely one option–a fallback that’s available to those who want to use it. But my hope is to make the parser smart enough to understand most efforts a newbie might try to navigate by landmark at least within the realm where the player’s character should be familiar with the territory (“GO TO THE BARN”, “FOLLOW THE DRIVEWAY”, “CROSS THE HIGHWAY”, “TAKE THE OFFRAMP”, etc.).
I’ve also imagined a portion of a game where navigating by compass requires literally (literarily?) having a compass. If the player isn’t carrying the compass, then “guess” which way is north and interpret all of the player’s compass commands relative to that guess rather than “true” north. Later they could find an actual compass and have to figure out that their earlier understanding of north was incorrect in order to interpret the maps they may have made.
I’m curious who else has experimented with landmark navigation (or other non-compass navigation) and what results they’ve had. Are there games that have done this that I should play? Or should I just accept that, while unrealistic, compass-based navigation is a conceit the players have accepted and will always expect?